Onboard for Orlando
For some reason, Florida doesn’t have the most exciting reputation as a travel destination. I never really understand why — the weather is amazing, natural wonders abound, and there are some pretty fantastic cities dotting those endless coastlines. Over two and a half weeks this January, I’d discover even more reasons to get excited about the Sunshine State, a place I return to over and over again thanks to the friends and family I have scattered across the peninsula.
I was thrilled when I found a cheap, convenient flight from New Orleans to Orlando on my favorite domestic airline, Southwest. Thanks to the frequent flyer points I racked up through their credit card sign up bonus, it was the first of many free flights I’ll be taking around the US this year!
Lucky for me, one of my favorite Florida residents lives within easy driving distance of Orlando — and she’s also got the job flexibility to come join me for a mid-week getaway. Last March, I couldn’t believe what a magical time I had at Dineyland using some my generous Dad’s Disney Vacation Club points. So this year, I asked if I could use a few more to check out a resort I’ve been strangely obsessed with for years — Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge.
Landing late at Orlando International Airport and hopping on a free shuttle to the Disney complex, I fell fast asleep, ready to burst awake the next morning and explore.
When Angie arrived I was giddily exploring, Kidani Village, the all-suite complex built specifically for Disney Vacation Club members. Though I’d read online that the neighboring Jambo House complex had slighter better facilities, we definitely appreciated the extra spacious quarters available at Kidani Village (which was all that was available for the busy post-holiday season by the time I booked.)
I mean, check out these digs! Though listed as a one bedroom villa, this room could actually comfortably sleep five thanks to a pull-out couch for two and a pull-out daybed for one in the living room. And with a huge master bath and an additional full bath off the living room, you could easily cram a rambunctious family inside.
That said, we were pretty happy it was just us girls.
Believe me, this jacuzzi tub in the master bath did not go unappreciated. I enjoyed a soak my first night, and Angie’s little sister Rae jumped in when she dropped by later in the week for a slumber party.
Mostly, though, it was all about the balconies — I wasn’t going to go if I couldn’t nab a savannah facing room. The novelty of waking up, flinging open the curtains and seeing if there was a pair of giraffes, a bunch of antelopes or a herd of zebras in my sightline did not ebb.
Though we were well into January, Christmas was still alive at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. Impressed as always by the creativity shown by the Disney Imagineers, I decided to take the free “African Inspired, Disney Designed” tour, one of dozens of entertainment options on offer at the lodge — many of which, including an weekly African wine tasting, were adult-focused.
Both my lovely South African guide and I were surprised to find I was the only one on the tour, but over the next hour I got lost in the amazing stories of how the art and culture of various tribes through Africa inspired the smallest details in the hotel. I couldn’t help but think how most of them would be overlooked by the majority of guests. But Disney did it anyway, and I think that’s what makes them special.
I also loved learning about the outreach program specific to Animal Kingdom lodge which brings young men and women from the African continent, mostly South Africa, to work in the lodges as game keepers, safari guides, receptionists, restaurant staff, and overall cultural ambassadors.
It really was a fun touch to get to chat to so many young people from Africa over my three nights at the lodge, all of them as enthusiastic about the opportunity as my friend Lindsay was about her own work with Disney.
After much mulling over, Angie and I decided not to go to the Animal Kingdom Theme Park. I kind of regret it now. But at the time, the price — almost $100 — seemed overwhelming, and Angie’s cousin who works in the park told us that they were reaching capacity every day of the week, meaning lines would be long and the park would be crazy crowded.
Luckily there was plenty to entertain us on-site, like two lovely pools and several January-appropriate jacuzzis.
If we had a complaint, it was an obvious one — the prices were insane. Luckily we had a full kitchen in our suite and I used it to make my own breakfast every morning, but I almost choked one day when an afternoon snack of a few clementines and a Diet Coke came to $7.
Still, we wanted to get the full Animal Kingdom Lodge experience, and so we decided to try out one of the three highly-rated onsite restaurants. Jiko and Boma were both tempting, but Sanaa won out for being right in Kidani Village — the other two were a chilly evening stroll away in Jambo House. I do admit that I lost my temper when trying to call from our room and make a reservation, a task which apparently requires your credit card, billing address, your mother’s maiden name and the serial code on your birth certificate. Finally frustrated enough to slam down the phone, we simply strolled the five minutes from our room and waited all of two minutes for a table. Maybe we just got lucky, but we gave a serious eye-roll to the reservations push from there forward.
Sanaa is an African-Indian fusion restaurant, and I fell in love with the interiors and the savannah views during my tour. We returned for dinner, but in retrospect I’d suggest trying to hit the restaurant for lunch in order to take advantage of those front row savannah seats.
Feeling adventurous — and cheap — we decided to split a bunch of appetizers and sides. Still, we managed to over-order, ending up with a nan service, an appetizer sampler that included lamb kefka sliders and potato and pea samosas, and a salad sampler that included exotic options like bhel puri — whatever the hell that is. And, of course, order a wine flight each. Despite splitting what was essentially three appetizers and one drink, it was still a pricey meal at $40 — but I felt well worth it for the experience.
The next night, we headed to Downtown Disney for dinner, a movie, and some evening strolling. Long story short? We were disappointed. The fancy dine-in movie theater was a mess, and the entire complex felt like a construction site.
As we checked out of Disney the next morning, I turned to Angie and confessed that while I’d loved the hotel, I felt like some of the magic was missing from our overall Disney experience. She confessed to feeling the same. Compared to my Disneyland weekend in California, this was a bit of a letdown. I’d loved the compact size of Disneyland — we parked once and never returned to the car until it was time to go, easily walking between the parks, Downtown Disney, and our hotel. Here, Downtown Disney was a dump, we had to drive everywhere through the sprawling Disney complex, and though I don’t have direct comparisons to back this up, I felt like things were more expensive. From the airport check-in to the hotel check-out, things seemed a little less polished, a little more tired, a little less magic.
I wonder how much of my meh feeling was compounded by not going into the Animal Kingdom park — I’m sure that would have given the trip a more cohesive feeling. Alas, perhaps I’ll return someday to find out. But in the meantime, Disneyland might just be more my jam!
Still, we had one more Orlando stop to make before hitting the road back to Angie’s native Jacksonville.
The Orth family is well-entrenched at Universal Studios — Angie’s done PR for them throughout her career, and Rae is currently on the payroll. That made this visit extra fun. I loved hearing behind-the-scenes stories from both sisters as we strolled through the theme park.
One thing I learned? I’m fairly Universal illiterate, having to admit sheepishly over and over again that I hadn’t seen the movies or TV shows that most of the rides were based on. Including, much to Angie’s horror and heartbreak, Harry Potter. I was a huge Seuss Landing fan, however.
Despite my complete disinterest in the fantasy genre, I had to admit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter lived up the hype. I was in awe of all the details Angie pointed out to me, and butterbeer ice cream? Worth a trip to Orlando alone.
And though we didn’t have time to properly explore, I was wowed by Universal’s CityWalk — it was everything I had been looking for from Downtown Disney, and more. I will definitely be returning there for my evening entertainment next time I’m in Orlando, thank you very much.
And then we were on our way to Jacksonville. I was excited to explore a new city for the first time, but we were foiled by the lowest temperatures of the year — it snowed, guys! But my two nights there were not for naught — I met my dear friend’s sweet soon-to-be fiancé, toured Angie Away Base Camp, and spent time with even more members of the Orth clan and crew.
I will be back someday to see Jacksonville for real. Thanks for having me, Miss Angie!
And with that, I was soon off again. Stay tuned for Tampa!
Yay! That was such a fun visit – you’ll always be an honorary Orth! I am so excited we get to continue our adventures this summer, too =)
That’s a cherished title, my friend — because the Orths really know how to have a good time. Thank you so much for having me!
I grew up in Orlando, so reading this post gave me so much nostalgia! My house was only about 35 minutes from all the theme parks, so my family always bought season passes which helped offset some of the high costs (since we used them so much). But since we lived so close, we never stayed at any of the resorts or did any multi-day trips. I’ve always wanted to stay at the Animal Kingdom Lodge though! Thanks for sharing!
Yup, my family in Tampa had the season passes too! I think that’s a must-have for local residents 🙂
One of my all-time favorite things about Disney World’s Epcot pavilion is that each world showcase employs only people who are actually from the country they work in. I LOVE that they did that for your hotel, too! It enriches the experience. I’m sorry you had a very meh feeling overall.. I’ve only been to Animal Kingdom once, but it was very interesting, and I would recommend seeing it at least one time. City Walk however, is an absolute MUST any time you’re in Orlando – there’s always something to do, see, or eat there!
I think Downtown Disney was the nail in the coffin, ha. Hopefully the extensive renovations they are doing end up really improving the place, because right now it just can’t stand up to City Walk!
I love that they took the time to add all of those little details.
Like you say i bet loads of people overlooked them, but when you stop and realise it sure does make it feel a little bit more special.
Shame it doesn’t make up for that ‘meh’ feeling though! x
Maybe I was too harsh in my wording, but overall I was just really struck by how much more I enjoyed the Disneyland experience than the Disneyworld one!
Love the pic of the giraffe eating from the tree.
I liked Universal more than I thought, it kinda made me a kid again. The Transformers & Spiderman ride were impressive and I rode the hulk coaster like…three times. My fav was the Simpsons village. You can have a Krusty burger and flaming Moe!
I rode the Hulk! I was so impressed when a ton of my Instagram followers were able to identify it from just a small snippet in a photo. I guess it’s a roller coaster with a serious following…
wow that looks so fun!! and how funny about the bhel puri.. in india its everywhere – indian street snack . looks like other parts of the world snack on it too. It’s good!
We felt very adventurous trying everything on the menu 🙂 For you it probably would have been the excitement equivalent of ordering pizza, ha.
I have also always wondered why everyone hates on Florida. I have never been there, but warm temperatures and crystal blue oceans always sound appealing! It has long been on my list of places to go, especially with the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I am trying to not get too sad that you aren’t a fan. If you ever feel sick just download Stephen Fry reading the British audiobooks out loud and I promise you will change your mind!
I know, Harry Potter is a lifestyle and I am definitely risking many friendships by outing myself as Not A Fan, ha. But I just have to be true to myself. I’m sure there’s another childhood icon we can bond over! Nancy Drew? No? 🙂
Ha! Totally Nancy Drew. What kid wouldn’t be obsessed with a girl with a blue convertible who solved mysteries and took names?!
I went through a phase where I wanted to be Nancy Drew SO BADLY and I was just constantly put off by the fact that there were ZERO mysterious dropping my lap! It just seemed so unfair.
You should definitely go back and visit the Animal Kingdom. It’s my favourite Disney park! I’m glad that you’re featuring Florida on the blog. I tried to convince a friend of mine to do Miami and the Florida Keys with me and she was not even remotely interested. Maybe your blog will help convince her otherwise 😉
Ah, I’ve got many posts about Miami coming up — definitely send them her way! And I’m super excited to be heading to the Keys in 2016. Can’t wait!
I haven’t been to Orlando Disney and wouldn’t call myself much of a theme park aficionado but I loved the original Disneyland in California, despite visiting on the hottest day EVER recorded in LA. I do really like waterslides so I went out to West Sydney a few weeks ago to go to Wet N Wild which is an awesome water based theme park – it rained all day but still, so much fun!
I have had a lot of fun at waterparks before! Then I saw a 20/20 special about how they are basically the most bacteria filled places on earth, but I try to just not think about that and enjoy them regardless ha.
You know, I’ve NEVER been to a Disney theme park. I used to think it would be fun to go now as an adult, but the prices being what they are, I think my little money would be better spent elsewhere! Glad you had fun with Angie anyway! 🙂
They ARE crazy expensive. I don’t mind forking over the cash if it’s going to be a crazy fun (and rare) treat, but I prefer to go on weekdays or less crowded times so I don’t sit in line all day stewing about how much I paid for the privilege, ha.
You’re heading to Tampa?? That’s my hometown! Too cool. Make sure to check out the new Dali museum in St Pete (downtown St. Pete in general is great). Ybor City in South Tampa is nice (Cuban food!), and the beaches in St. Petersburg-south are amazing. If you have time, check out Anna Maria Island and Sarasota. Enjoy!!
I LOVE the Dali Museum. Such a treasure! Sadly on this trip the night we planned to go to Ybor it poured rain. Ah well, with my family there I go back over and over again!
It’s so funny that you think Disney World was a little less magical than Disneyland- after spending basically my entire childhood in Disney World, I finally paid a visit to it’s California counterpart last month and I felt the same way as you, but about CA! Sleeping Beauty’s castle was under construction and completely covered by painted tarps, and all of the big roller coasters were closed- not to mention there weren’t any parades 🙁
Maybe it’s because I visited the Orlando version first and millions of times after, but I felt Disneyland lacked some of the magic. I do agree with you on a few things though, Downtown Disney is sort of dumpy and in desperate need of an overhaul (which I think it’s getting now), and I did love the proximity of everything in Anaheim.
Either way, I’m glad you had such a lovely time! And whether you’re crazy for California or a Florida fanatic, Disney never fails to deliver the good times and happy smiles. And don’t forget the turkey legs and dole whips (which I’ve been indulging in frequently since my arrival in Hawaii) 🙂
Ha, I guess it really is all circumstance. I hope Downtown Disney will come back alive and thriving. City Walk is so impressive, it will have a lot to compete with!
It sounds like a good time, I haven’t been to Disney since I was a kid, I went to Euro Disney and the one in California but never Orlando. Maybe it looses it’s magic when you grow up, I hope not though! The hotel looks so cool!
The one in California had TONS of magic for me just a year ago, so I don’t think it’s age 🙂 Maybe just the reality of crowds, distance, expenses, parking, etc, seem more real when you don’t have a parent dealing with them, ha.
AWESOME! So glad you had a good time at Universal 🙂
So good to see you Rachel! Thanks for playing with us!
I am more of a Universal gal myself. But the lodge looks pretty incredible!
Universal has some pretty cool looking hotels popping up too. There’s this really cute retro beach looking one (can’t remember the name now, of course) that I really want to check out next time I’m in Orlando!
I haven’t been to Disney in ages, but I was just at Universal in January, and I was really impressed, too! I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, so obviously those parts of the parks were my favorite, but I was happy to see how much there was to see/do in both parks AND in CityWalk. I ended up enjoying myself a lot more than I thought I would!
I can only imagine how amazing it would be for a true HP fan. I would die if one of my obsessions came to life in the form of a theme park (I’m looking at you, Jaws… the ride that was shut down in order to build Harry Potter land, ha.)
That’s a shame that Disney World didn’t give you that magical feeling you were expecting. But, seriously, that hotel looks so amazing I probably wouldn’t have left the grounds! At least you were able to stay at such an amazing place 🙂 I’ve never been to Universal Studios but I always assumed it would make Disneyland in California look like nothing. I’m not the biggest Disney fan or anything but Downtown Disney in California is pretty fun!
I loved Downtown Disney in Cali! That House of Blues happy hour could not be beat 🙂 And yes — the hotel was gorgeous.
The park in Orlando looks like so much fun. I live in Germany so the nearest Disneyland Magic is in Paris which I absolutely love. I mean, it’s Paris! And because it’s Europe, the prices are fantastic with kids being free until they’re 12 (depending on the season of course LOL). I took my son when he was 5, and we were there for 3 days. I went mad with excitement, not my son mind, me! I’ve probably been to Disneyland Paris about 7 times LOL!
A few years ago, we did a road trip through California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona and of course, we spent our last full day at Disneyland California – amazing! My German husband was skeptical at first, but even he became a convert.
Wow, free until 12! I don’t think that applies in the US parks, though I could be wrong. I have a feeling it’s maybe free until… 3? Sounds like you got a great deal!
We have had a condo on the perimeter of Disney since I was a kid, and I also feel like it doesn’t hold the magic it once did.
Universal, on the other hand? LOVE IT.
Such a bummer. I just think the staff didn’t seem quite as… sparkly?! Ha. The one exception being the international team at the Lodge. They were great!